Cauliflower Gratin with Ham, Leeks, and Fontina

I love cheesy cauliflower gratin, but I’ve never met one without, excuse the expression, a wet bottom. My sister gave me the solution – line the dish with potatoes, which soak up any liquid the cauliflower exudes. It works like a charm!

As opposed to steaming or boiling, I like the brown and braise the cauliflower for the gratin because it imparts some nice color to the florets. Of course roasting would too, but I think it’s a bit easier to control the texture of the cauliflower with this method, so it’s tender, with just a touch of resistance, in the finished dish. This gratin treads the line between hearty and light; with a salad and a glass of wine, it makes a great dinner on a chilly spring night.

Serves 4 as a main course

Ingredients

  • 3 medium cooked potatoes, peeled and sliced
  • 2 cups milk, preferably whole
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
  • 1 medium head cauliflower (about 2 pounds), trimmed and cut into 1 ½-inch florets
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ⅔ cup bread crumbs, preferably fresh or Panko
  • ¾ pound ham steak, cut into ½-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
  • 2 medium leeks (about 1 pound), trimmed, white and light green parts cleaned and sliced ½-inch thick (about 2 ½ cups)
  • 1 medium garlic clove, minced
  • 1 ½ teaspoons minced fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • ¼ cup finely grated Parmesan (about 1 ounce)
  • ¾ cup grated Italian Fontina (about 3 ounces)
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Directions

  1. Shingle the potato slices in the bottom of a 3-quart gratin dish and set aside. Adjust the oven rack to the center position and heat the oven to 450 degrees. In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk and bay leaves to a simmer, and set aside off heat. In a very large skillet (with a cover) over medium-high heat, heat the canola oil until it shimmers. Add the cauliflower and cook, stirring often, until the florets are brown in spots and just barely tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of water, ½ teaspoon of salt, and pepper to taste, stir to mix, reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet, and cook, shaking the skillet occasionally, until the florets are just tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 8 minutes longer. Remove the cover and, if necessary, boil away any remaining liquid, shaking the pan occasionally so the cauliflower won’t stick. Transfer the cauliflower to a large bowl and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large nonstick saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the bread crumbs, ¼ teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste, and cook, stirring constantly, until lightly browned and fragrant, about 1 1/2 minutes; transfer to a medium bowl and set aside. Wipe out the pan, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, return to medium-high heat, and melt the butter. Add the ham, stir to coat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 3 minutes. Add the leeks, stir to coat, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 2 minutes longer. Add the garlic and thyme and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 40 seconds. Reduce the heat to medium, add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until it is light golden, about 1 minute. Remove the bay leaves from the milk and, stirring constantly, gradually add it and bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the nutmeg and cayenne, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens to about the consistency of very softly whipped cream, about 3 minutes longer. Off the heat, add the Parmesan, and Fontina, 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper to taste, and most of the parsley and stir until the cheeses are melted and incorporated.
  3. Immediately add the sauce to the cauliflower, stir to mix, and spread into an even layer in the potato-lined gratin dish. Sprinkle evenly with browned bread crumbs and bake until the surface is golden brown and the edges are bubbly, about 17 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining parsley and serve hot.